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Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be For Labor When It's Flat on Its Back.

Having spent most of the past 20 years defending union workers, Thomas Geoghegan, (*) a Harvard-educated attorney, thinks he knows who has devastated organized labor in America: people like him. Educated, liberal Baby Boomers, the kind he meets at fern bars in his neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago. These people, he feels, abandoned the labor movement in the eighties, if not before, consigning the working class to downward mobility as their own incomes rose.

Sure, others are also responsible: Congress, the Supreme Court, incompetent managers, corrupt union leaders, and the economic policies of Ronald Reagan. But in this ingenious and funny memoir, Geoghegan is hardest on his class and on himself. For he sees in his legal practice and in the laws under which he must operate a major reason for labor's decline. He makes an inspiring case for a rewriting of federal labor law, but appeals to fairness only get you so far. To regain the allegiance of liberals, Geoghegan has to convince them that stronger unions won't weaken an already shaky U.S. economy. Apparently, though, even he doesn't quite believe that.

In part, the tone of self-doubt that runs through this book is artful self-deprecation. Geoghegan strugles not to be the hero of his own autobiography. But he fails. He comes across as decent, honest, and capable, a man who has won some impressive victories for his clients, including a famous pension-rights settlement with the bankrupt Wisconsin Steel.

He also writes in the tradition of frustrated men and women of the Left who make forays into the working class, hoping to shed the guilt they feel about their own privilege. His failed attempts to bridge the class gap are part of his tragicomic schtick. Early in his career, two coal miners try to teach him to spit tobacco across the room into a wastebasket. "I had to get up, walk across, lean over the basket, and drool." Later, when he moves to the South Side of Chicago to work on a dissident steel-worker election, he is giddy at the sight of it all: the brick bungalows, the Croatian restaurants, the corner bars with Old Style Beer signs over the doors, the vast mills--"So much capital just lying on the ground. But the dreariness gets to him. One day, he discovers Hyde Park, with its bookstores and BMWs ("I felt like a sailor seeing land") and moves out.

Striking out

There is an undeniable charm in his self-effacing honesty, and it serves his purpose. Geoghegan is a yuppie Everyman, not a saint. It is easy to empathize with him and, by extension, with his cause.

Yet after a while, you wish he would give his class-consciousness a rest. Awareness of class barriers is a fine thing, but too much of it can itself become a barrier. He wants us to empathize with his clients, yet too often they recede behind his own guilty reactions to them, as when he describes the dark art of interviewing potential trial witnesses:

It was like an audition, really, as sick as that sounds. Their stories were numbing, all the same:

"I lost my pension."

"I lost my car."

"I lost my wife."

And I would think silently, "Next."

Geoghegan uses his legal practice as a metaphor for the larger post-industrial transformation that has penalized honest, virile product-shufflers. That he is shifty, effete paper-shufflers. That he is shuffling papers to help the blue-collar cause doesn't quell his feelings of inadequacy. Current labor laws, he says, make his job sisyphean.

In Geoghegan's vie of labor history, unions saw their heyday after Congress passed the NorrislaGuardia Act in the early thirties. The act took labor cases out of federal court jurisdiction. Unions could finally flex their economic muscle through strikes, free from the threat of court injunctions. But over the years Washington reversed itself. First came the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed the mass strikes that labor leaders like John L. Lewis had used so effectively. Then in the sixties, liberal Supreme Court justices began "implying" no-strike provisions in all kinds of contracts, and enforcing them.

Geoghegan saw this firsthand. As a staff attorney for the United Mine Workers during the wildcat strikes in the seventies, he found himself pleading with the court not to impose fines while simultaneously begging the strikers to go back to work. Without the power to strike at will, labor's clout wilted. There were 443 strikes nationwide in 1972, he reports, but only 43 in 1989, "about the same as the number of prison riots."

The liberal justices had good intentions. They meant to force labor and management to settle disputes in a "civilized" way, through arbitration. But the effect has been merely to shift the balance of power to corporations, which have deeper pockets than most unions. "The big issue in labor management today is not who can survive a strike, but who can survive, without blinking, the arbitrator's bill." And because grievances take years to get through the clogged system, companies have learned, says Geoghegan, that they can violate the Wagner Act by firing employees who try to organize. By the time the company has been brought to task and forced to pay a nominal fine, the organizing drive is usually long over.

Thanks to the law, unions themselves have become litigious and bureaucratic. Union staff members who once stood on soap boxes preaching solidarity now spend their days like so many paralegals, filling out grievance forms and dreaming about going to law school. At the UMW, Geoghegan began to see the striking coal miners as a threat to the union and to his job. Similarly, union staff members have come to view arbitrations as unwelcome drains on union coffers and to treat their own grievance-filing members with the kind of disregard perfected by clerks at the department of motor vehicles.

Labor's pains

But the most serious failur of labor law is in the area of union democracy. Congressmen love to debate in great detail the legitimacy of elections in Central America, but they seem to care not a whit if the leaders of some local in Northwest Indiana are stuffing the ballot box. Geoghegan has witnessed, among other horrors, a Teamsters election in Chicago in which the officers hired El Rukn gang members as "security." The Teamsters are currently engaged in their first honest election, thanks to federal supervision. But for the rest of organized labor, the policy is laissezfaire.

For instance, the Department of Labor can require new elections if union leaders deny a challenger the right to place observers in the polling place. "But over the years," says Geoghegan, "I've had several conversations with lowly Labor Department officials in Washington that go like this:

"They've kicked us out of the room," I say. "They've denied us our right to observe."

"Well," the man says, "that's violation of the act. But did it affect the outcome of the election? As you know, that's what you have to prove."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, after they threw out your observers, did they do anything wrong?"

"We don't know, obviously. they kicked us out."

"Well, how do you expect us to bring the case?"

Though he expresses little hope that anything will be done, Geoghegan offers a plan he thinks would right these wrongs, cure unions f their ills, and allow working-class America to once agian cut itself a fair share of the American pie. It's pretty simple: Get government out of the business of enjoining strikes and into the business of assuring fair elections. Require a neutral outside agency to count the votes. Provide public money for campaigns. Force unions to share their membership lists with cahllengers. (Amazingly, they are not required to do so now.) Will it help? For once, Geoghegan has no doubts. In Canada, where elections are cleaner, the unionized percentage of the workforce has risen from 25 to 32 in the past 30 years. It's fallen during the same period in the U.S. from 35 to 17 percent.

It takes a cold heart to come away from this book as anything but a believer in union democracy. Unfortunately, economics, not democracy, is what makes so many of Geoghegan's liberal friends wince at the thought of stronger unions.

A more perfect union

Nearly everyone now agrees that stagnant working-class incomes are a huge, shameful problem, especially in relation to the soaring salaries of American CEOs. There is also widespread agreement that unions serve a crucial purpose when they force corporations and government to pay closer attention to workplace health and safety issues. Alas, unions also tend to defend featherbedding, dated technologies, and inefficient work rules. Doesn't it seem, then, a bit self-destructive merely to change the law to give labor more bargaining power at a time when the ability of American corporations to compete globally is in serious doubt?

Geoghegan is coy abut these economic concerns. One moment he endorses the view of New Left economists that Reagan policies, especially the high dollar, destroyed steel and other industries, and that the unions were merely victims. A page later he's not so sure. "The hard part about being in labor," he muses as he looks out at an abandoned steel mill, "is telling yourself 'It's not my fault.'"

You come away feeling that Geoghegan sort of know that questions about work rules and efficiency are damning for unions, but in order to be on the moral side he has decided not to think about them. He tellingly confesses never to have been inside a coal mine or a steel mill, despite having represented coal miners and steelworkers for 15 years. He defends atomic workers fighting random drug testing, as if the possibility of stoned employees running nuclear power plants were no big deal. He is thankful that unions have found at least one growth market: the public sector. Yet he seems not to have noticed that liberal officials like Mario Cuomo can't cut personnel without maximum damage to services, thanks to seniority provisions in union contracts.

By avoiding the economic flaws in his plea for stronger unions, Geoghegan misses evidence that would actually strengthen his case. Labor economists are seeing signs that unions are playing a more beneficial role in the economy than you might think. Recent studies at the University of Wisconsin, for instance, show that unionized firms are better than nonunion ones at implementing the kind of teambased production systems that the management gurus say are crucial to U.S. competitiveness. What about the terrible lack of skills in the U.S. workforce? Most companies avoid training for fear their investment will be lost if the worker leaves. Why couldn't unions, which have better control over their members, become the key providers of training? In the auto, steel, and telecommunications industries, that is exactly what is happening.

Forty years ago, Big Labor had more than strong labor laws. It had a better justification to support its power: Higher wages, it was said, increase demand for goods and services, and hence boost the economy. That line isn't too convincing today. What labor needs is a new justification, a persuasive argument that strong unions will benefit not just a slice of the working class, but the country as a whole.

Paul Glastris is the Midwest correspondent for U.S. News & World Report and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.

(*) Which Side Are You On? Trying to be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back. Thomas Geoghegan. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $19.95.
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Author:Glastris, Paul
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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